Sunday, January 8, 2017

The World Is Wide Enough: Dealing With Jealousy In Your Writing Life


Let me just start this post off with a little honesty: generosity and the celebration of others' successes is not, shall we say, my strong suit. I am by nature a jealous person; I tend to have a lot of knee-jerk envy even in situations where envy is abjectly ridiculous. When I was on the agent hunt, I felt envious of friends who found agents before I did, or even people I didn't know who found agents before I did. When I was on submission (which was thankfully a very brief time for me, and so I definitely didn't have room for jealousy!), I felt envious of friends whose books sold in two days. When I was waiting to announce my book deal, I felt envious of friends who got to announce sooner than I did. Even now, in this happy place of my-dream-has-come-true and before the full anxiety of being a debut author has struck, I feel envious of silly things, things I won't even be eligible for for a long time: starred reviews, fancy author blurbs, second and third book deals.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I suspect that I'm not the only writer who struggles with the little green monster on the daily. And today, that's what I want to talk about.

When you're a struggling writer (and let's face it—we are all, at every point of the journey, struggling in one way or another), the sense of scarcity can be crippling. Every day, people are finding agents, getting book deals, holding their books in their hands, hitting bestseller lists. And with every author that achieves the milestone you're desperately seeking yourself, it can feel like your chance of succeeding just got a little further away.

But she signed with my dream agent, and now that agent won't be taking on new clients for awhile!

But if that editor offered on his book, surely she won't also offer on mine!

Her book is so similar to mine that surely no agent/editor/reader will want mine now!

His book is on more goodreads lists than mine, so it's sure to get more pre-publication buzz!

Her book sold for so much more money than mine, so she'll be a lead title and I won't!

I've been thinking a lot about this over the past two years, as I've battled my own jealousy demons. Often, a line from the very end of Hamilton comes back to my mind—just after Hamilton and Burr's infamous duel, as Burr realizes that their feud has cost him personally, as well as robbing the world of a fine and creative mind. I was too young and blind to see, he sings. I should've known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.

This is the thing I hold on to, the thing I remind myself of, when I'm in the grasp of envy. The world is wide enough. Another writer's success does not rob me of my own chance; the only thing stolen is the way my bitterness sucks away my joy, hopefulness, and inspiration. Sometimes, that reminder can be tough to hold on to—but for me, at least, it's been the only way to survive the emotional ups and downs of a writing career.

Here are my concrete tips for how I've learned to handle jealousy in writing relationships:

1. Allow yourself to feel what you feel.

Some people have the mysterious ability to take unpleasant emotions, look at them coolly, and then choose to discard them. My husband is one of these. I am most definitely not. I've found that the more I try to stuff icky feelings away, the more they tend to lash out in nasty and uncontrollable ways later. For me, a key part of overcoming jealousy is allowing myself to sit with that feeling, and having compassion for myself for feeling it in the first place, instead of lecturing myself about what a terrible person I am and trying to force myself to stop feeling what I'm feeling through sheer force of will.

2. What is the jealousy really telling you?

For me, jealousy is often a surface emotion, a glossy veneer over the thing I'm really feeling deep down inside: Fear. Fear that I'll never get an agent, or sell a book. Fear that my book will bomb and I'll lose the ability to do what I love on a professional level because of it. That fear can feel paralyzing, but often, being willing to name and confront it helps the jealousy that overlays it to subside.

3. Talk to a trusted friend.

I'm an extrovert, and I figure things out through talking through them. An important part of dealing with any difficult situation for me is finding a trusted friend or two with whom I can safely share my feelings. It's important that they're somebody who will neither condemn nor validate your feelings—they shouldn't be the kind of person who will say either "Oh yeah, you're SO much better than that other writer, YOU should've gotten the agent instead!" or "How could you be so small-minded? Just grow up and get over yourself!" My trusted friends are often fellow writers, who can intimately understand the struggles I'm sharing with them, but are enough removed from the situation that they're able to empathize without being drawn into the middle of the fray.

4. If it's appropriate, talk to the person who sparked the jealousy.

Often, this isn't the right course of action. But twice in my career, there have been times where having the vulnerability to be honest helped salvage relationships that were really important to me. Early last year, while I was at a really dark place in my agent search, one of my dearest friends got an agent in a pretty fast, fairytale scenario. It. Was. So. Hard. For days, I wrestled with bitterness and envy, until that friend and I finally talked it out. Not only did our friendship survive that shift, it grew stronger as a result. Likewise, this summer when my book sold quickly, that was tough on another dear friend who'd been on submission longer than I had. Luckily for me (since she's an awesome friend I would've been heartbroken to lose!), we both worked hard to make sure that we were on the same page in how we planned to deal with that transition.

If you're the one feeling jealous, be honest with your friend. Tell her that you love her, and that you're happy for her success, but explain why it's hard for you to hear. Try to come to an arrangement that works for both of you in terms of how, and how often, she brings up her exciting news to you.

On the other hand, if you're the one who's had success and you know your friend is struggling with it, be sensitive to her feelings. Ask her if she'd like to be kept abreast of your exciting developments, or if she'd rather not have all the details. Know that she's thrilled for you, but also sad for herself, and that both those emotions can exist together without invalidating each other.

5. Focus on the things you CAN control.

Sometimes, that might be drafting the book you're working on, or polishing up a certain aspect of craft you're struggling with. Sometimes, that might be offering to critique others' work as a way to both get out of your own head a little bit and grow as a writer—last year when I was struggling so much, I offered to crit more than I ever have in my life, and although on occasion that was tough, it was also immensely helpful both for strengthening my own writing and for feeling like I was doing something that was objectively, measurably helpful and successful. And other times, it might be focusing on something completely different: A non-writing-related hobby, or parenting, or your day job. Writing is a tough business, and it's imperative to place as much focus as you can on the things that are in your control, because—like it or not—many things just aren't.

6. If all else fails, fake it till you make it.

I won't lie, I kind of hate that advice in most contexts. Who honestly wants to be superficial and shallow in the face you present to the world? Still, there are times where this nugget of wisdom really is the right answer, and in my experience, jealousy is one of them. Relationships with critique partners, friends, and your writing community are precious; don't allow your jealousy to ruin them. If you're struggling with another's success, put on a smile the best you can and fake enthusiasm and congratulations until those feelings turn into something more genuine—especially if they're not a close enough friend for it to be appropriate for you to open up about your feelings. Recognize that jealousy is a real part of the writing journey, whatever point you may be at, and, in the immortal words of Elsa, be willing to do the best that you can and let it go.

.   .   .   .   .

Wherever you're at in your writing career, remember this: the world is wide enough. The world is wide enough for your stories and theirs, too. The world is wide enough for lots of starred reviews. The world is wide enough for you to find a new dream agent, even if the one you always thought you wanted turned you down. The world is wide enough, and being willing to cheer others along even when you're struggling is what will, in turn, ensure that you have a solid cheering section when your turn comes. And it will: Because the world is wide enough for your success.

2 comments:

  1. I love this. I've been thinking about not having a mindset of scarcity, and I love this idea that there is enough. The world is wide enough.

    Also, I love that we've been able to work through this writing game together. :-)

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  2. As a reader, I never think: "Ugh! Yet ANOTHER fantastic book this year, don't they know I've already hit my limit of outstanding reads?!" Which is my roundabout way of saying that the world is definitely wide enough for an infinite number of Hamiltons and Burrs on my bookshelf. <3

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